Barrie: A Triumph of Personality

Barrie: A Triumph of Personality  (1906) 
by Jesse Lynch Williams

Of J. M. Barrie. Extracted from "Appleton's" magazine, v.7 1906, pp. 290-293.




IN New York, on the evening this is written, two plays are being acted at theaters not far from each other. One is Mr. J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan"; the other Mr. Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman." The former is a sort of fairy story; the latter deals with grown-up people, very much grown up. These two pieces are as different from each other as both are different from all the rest of the plays by other dramatists in New York or London. Both have run night after night "to capacity," and each "draws" chiefly from the same class of theatergoers—including many who seldom go to the theater—namely, the "intelligent and refined" element. The reason for their success, popular and artistic, is the same in both instances: the free expression of a real personality.


In the case of Mr. Shaw, it is a loudly shouted personality, a conscious rebellion against everything conventional in sight. Instead of whatever is, is right, his guiding principle seems to be—so far as he is guided or has any principles at all—whatever is, is wrong. If you see a head, hit it. That is his chief stock in trade. He is the walking delegate of the social organism, the professional striker, the naughty boy of the school of civilization, who plays truant and scrawls his opinions devilishly on the fence. That is as far as he has gone as yet. What he would mean to do, if anything, after he had knocked down all our institutions, remains to be seen; perhaps he would stick them up again. Probably it will always remain to be seen.

But even if he does not succeed in getting them all down, it is needless to add here that the effect of his sort of effort must be, on the whole, good. It helps to clear the atmosphere of sham, like certain of the famous court jesters, who used to say what no one else dared express, even if others had the cleverness. He makes us think, he makes us turn our inherited opinions over and look at them from the other side where the mold has gathered. He makes us say: "Why, to be sure!" and helps us reassort our "values" and cling more tightly to those that are worthy—the process so mightily urged by his master Nietzsche, from whom Mr. Shaw acquired the title of his play.

At any rate, whatever he has done for society as a dramatizer of social tracts, or for art as simple dramatist, is due to the expression of himself and would have been lost if he had attempted to compress himself into the ready-made molds of opinion and play building.

In the case of Mr. Barrie's piece, it is, of course, a very different triumph of personality—different as the two subjects are. It is not a loud, swaggering rebellion against the traditions of the English stage; there is no apparent rebellion at all; he simply ignores them. He does not try to break them down; he slips around on the other side, with the guileless smile of the boy who never grew up, and writes what he wants to write in the way he wants to write it.

But, whether unconsciously or otherwise, he has made a far greater departure from the established order of things (referring now to the two playwrights as craftsmen rather than as human beings in a moral universe) than has his neighbor, preaching and profaning on Broadway. In "Peter Pan," effects are achieved across the footlights of a kind never even attempted before on any stage. There is the sheer poetry of childhood, the delicate flavor and fragrance of the state of being young—hitherto strictly literary material as distinguished from dramatic; and, at that, material which but few writers have used successfully even in the pages of books, where your characters' thoughts can be described, and what you think about it yourself, together with what is happening elsewhere, and yesterday, and where accrue all the other advantages the fiction writer has at his command and the dramatist lacks.

Obviously this should not be taken to mean that either of these playwrights can transcend the laws of dramatic construction, which are as immutable as the multiplication table or the fact of specific gravity—though each seems to coquette with them at times. Even "Peter Pan," we learn in "The Little White Bird," like the Darling children in the play, had been obliged to have his shoulders touched with fairy dust before he could learn to fly. But these are two playwrights who have learned to use those laws, instead of being used by them, for the free expression of their own personalities. And it is the more remarkable and pertinent to the subject that the ideas expressed by their personalities are among the last which experts in dramatic affairs would be apt to single out for exploitation on the stage, and most of all the English or American stage.

Mr. Barrie, who does not proclaim himself in his work, or even in his prefaces, for more than a reluctant page or two, and perhaps by reason of that very fact reveals his real self the more accurately, would make the better text for preaching a sermon on the salvation of personality, which is the gospel of art.


And yet for this very reason—that he is so very much himself—he is difficult to define in terms of anything else. There are so few names to call him; it is like trying to describe a new color. Here is a writer without any background. He had no literary lineage. He bears no family resemblances, and he has no family relationships. He is not a member of any group. He is not particularly a product of his own time. He does not logically fit in at the end of any literary "movement" so that we may call him the "flower" of it. He does not stand at the head of some new school, so that we might hail him as a prophet; for no one is by way of following in his footsteps; the cleverest imitators are too clever to try that He is as nearly sui generis as any sane human organism can be. He is the Peter Pan among the runaway children that follow the beautiful fairy art of make-believe.

Mr. Barrie has the narrowest field of any of the prominent authors in this age of globe-trotting writers. It seems to be a pretty rich one, and he works it for all it is worth; he repeats his crops; but it is quite constricted. If he ever traveled as far east of England as across the Channel to Paris, there is nothing to indicate it in his work. He came to America once, but if he kept a notebook, he has kept it to himself. All the important scenes in his books and most of his plays are Thrums or London.

Again, his themes are almost as limited as his field is narrow. They could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Indeed, it might almost be said that he has but one serious theme, the love of parent and offspring, which recurs in about all his important work, even sometimes in his satirical phantasies. But, for that matter, when this motif does give place entirely to purer satire, it is merely a reflex manifestation of the same personality. A man who takes the real things of life so seriously would naturally regard the sham things in the way we are made to see them in "The Admirable Crichton," one of the most telling satires on English existence ever written by Barrie or anyone else.

Finally, so economical with his material is this careful Scotchman—probably because he loves it rather than because he is impoverished by his narrow, insular experience of life—that he works it and reworks it into new and various forms. Even so, he has written less than most of his contemporaries who have been writing a considerably shorter time. His collected works take a little less than half the space on the library shelf that Mr. Kipling's occupy, who is five years his junior. It should be borne in mind, however, that the former has devoted most of his recent time to writing plays, not included on the shelves as yet. Kipling's authorized edition contains twenty-four volumes; Barrie's, eleven.

But despite the limitations cited—if limitations they be—see what he has accomplished. He has written literature. He has introduced imagination to the modern English drama. He is the first English novelist, old or modern, to become a playwright at all, except such as Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins, who worked more or less with collaborators, though Mr. Shaw, if his early sociological narratives can be called novels, might be included. In any case, this playwright has pretty nearly changed the whole aspect of the British stage. One is tempted to predict that he, together with Stephen Phillips and that same Shaw (aided, of course, by Mr. Pinero, and one or two other playwrights, whose work may also be included as literature), will, before they finish, rehabilitate the English theater—which has been divorced from literature quite long enough—bringing these two great branches of art together where they belong and thus establishing a new régime somewhat similar to what already thrives so harmoniously just across the Channel.

If that is the overstatement of enthusiasm, this much, at least, may be coolly affirmed: What Mr. Barrie has accomplished has not been due to the repression of himself to meet the measure of English classical tradition, on the one hand; nor, on the other, has he extended himself in order to catch the popular fancy—and he has got them both. He is pronounced literature by those who know it when they see it, and he would be pronounced a successful man even by those to whom money is the measure of success. According to excellent authority he had made, up to three years ago, £50,000 out of one play alone, "The Little Minister," which at that time was being performed by five different companies in various parts of the world at the same time. This takes no account of his other plays, nor of his other royalties from books, which latter may not have amounted to very much in comparison. Only one of his books, however, failed to prove more or less of a popular success, and that, strangely enough, was his worst, namely, "Better Dead," his well-named earliest effort, the sale of which he has since suppressed in England. Though none of his other seven or eight plays has duplicated the remarkable popularity of "The Little Minister," all have proved successful, either at home or here, of both, except "The Wedding Guest," which failed, strangely enough, notwithstanding it was a problem play, produced at a period given to problem plays. This is as surprising as everything else about Mr. Barrie.


In the reluctantly written introduction to the American edition of his books, he relates how no editor at first wanted his Scotch dialect stories, and no publisher would risk his book of "Auld Licht Idylls" until the editor of the St. James Gazette took some of them and asked for more. But let him tell it:

"In time, however, I found another paper, the British Weekly, with an editor as bold as the first (or shall I say he suffered from the same infirmity?). He revived my drooping hopes and I was again able to turn to the only kind of literary work I now seemed to have much interest in. He let me sign my articles, which was a big step for me, and led to my having requests for work from elsewhere, but always the invitation said: 'Not Scotch—the public will not read dialect.'"

There are two points that bear hard on our text in this excerpt; the first is the obvious one, that he was determined to do the thing he was interested in, to follow the lines of his own personality; the second is that for a while he did not do it. When he says, "I was again able to turn to the only kind of literary work I now seemed to have much interest in," he discloses rather eloquently the hiatus in the logical development of his personality, a period of literary hack work, which was the bridge between his obscure past and his brilliant future. There would have been no particular virtue in starving merely because he could not write about Thamas Haggart and Thrums; it seemed better to live until he could do so. This interval supplied most of the illegitimate creations afterwards gathered in from oblivion and given their creator's name in unauthorized editions which he has disowned, as fathers of respectable families are sometimes compelled to do.

But as soon as he was able he was back in the kail yard once more, writing the thing he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it.

It is fortunate for modern English literature that he was not shunted off; "A Window in Thrums" was the outcome. It is worth repeating what his friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, said to him about this book in one of the first of the letters these two Scotchmen exchanged; the two friends never met: "Jess is beyond my frontier line; I could not touch her skirts; I have no such glamour of twilight in my pen. I am a capable artist; but it begins to look to me as if you were a man of genius. Take care of yourself for my sake."

In explaining the sadness of the conclusion of "A Window in Thrums," the consistent and persistent artist is again disclosed. "When the English publishers read the manuscript," Mr. Barrie says in his introduction, … "they begged me to alter its end. They warned me that the public do not like sad books. Well, the older I grow and the sadder the things I see, the more I do wish my books to be bright and hopeful, but an author may not always interfere with his work, and if I had altered the end of 'The Window in Thrums,' I think I should never have had any more respect for myself."

In telling how he happened to write this book, he explains that as the love of mother and son had written everything of his that he considered of any worth (and there lies the real reason for the criticised existence of the book about his own mother—he considered it a debt he owed her memory), it was only natural that the awful horror of the untrue son should dog his thoughts and call upon him to paint the picture. He adds: "That, I believe now, though I had no idea of it at the time, is how 'A Window in Thrums' came to be written, less by me than by an impulse from behind."

"An impulse from behind" explains the whole matter in a nutshell. An impulse from in front may lead one to write historical novels when "they" want historical fiction; and sometimes rather good ones; still oftener it brings great material returns, but it will never bring literature.

In "The Little Minister" the author made up his mind to give us a bright, hopeful book. All went well for a while, but presently his characters began to run away with him. He tells in one of his other introductions of their willful behavior. "'Come back,' I cry. 'You're off the road.' 'We prefer this way,' they reply. I try bullying. 'You are only people in a book!' I shout, 'and it's my book and I can do what I like with you, so come back.' But they seldom come, and it ends in my plodding after them. Unless I yield, they and I do not become good friends, which is fatal to a book." Nevertheless, in "The Little Minister" he braved them, having set out on a pleasant sentimental journey—with a set smile. And this brought him the famous literary spanking from his older brother Scot in the South Seas: '"The Little Minister' ought to have ended badly; we all know it did; and are infinitely grateful to you for the grace and good feeling with which you lied about it. If you had told the truth I, for one, could not have forgiven you."


It is a very persistent personality and potent, but what the charm of it is would be much harder to tell. Go to "Peter Pan," and if you like it you will know; if you don't, you never can. But it is no more to be described than the face of Tinker Bell, the fairy in the piece who appears only as a ray of dancing light. You can't put your finger down on any one quality, such as whimsicality, humor, satire, or fancy, and say that here is the most characteristic Barrie, for just when you think you've got him, he's off and laughing at you, dancing and playing around you and your idea, as Tinker Bell flashed about the Darling's nursery.

There are some things about Barrie that one could wish were otherwise. His art is at times too persistently artless. His unexpected humor, if you read much of him at once, becomes expected. His children seem more like those observed by bachelors than those known by expert parents kept awake by them. But they can bring tears, even to sleepless eyes, and that is more than most of the child writing can do. It is not the sad parts that accomplish this feat with some of us, but certain other things. He seldom becomes maudlin or symbolic about his children; so far as I can recall he does not call them "tots." Nor does he sentimentalize about "lit-tle children's voices," or the "patter of little feet." In certain respects they are very real kids—delightful little egotists, like yours and mine. Peter crows every time he kills a pirate, and one of the other lost children shouts "I'm in a story! I'm in a story! Tell all about me." That is the sort of thing to make us love his children and their father.

There are people who do not like "Peter Pan" at all. I know this to be a fact, for I am acquainted with three of them—a good sort they are, too, whom you would not think it of. For such, of course, it is a closed book—you love the thing, or you don't, and there is no sense in arguing about it. One of them thinks he can convince me that the entire play is artificial, false, and immoral. Perhaps he can also demonstrate that dessert is better than salad, but I do. not care; for sweets.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.